Sexual Enchantment: experiences of the ordinary and the extraordinary

What makes sex something extraordinary for people, and how do people experience the extraordinary amidst the familiair and the everyday? How is this connected to peoples experiences of the transcendent?

These questions were taken up by members of our project team. Following the initiative of Jelle Wiering,  we presented our insights from the Cultural Encounters project at the Conference on Religious Transformation and Gender: Contestations in/and the Study of Religion, hosted by Utrecht University on 11 March 2021.

In the panel we explored a new branch of research into sexuality, through a first tentative exploration into the question of how sex becomes/is enchanted. Inspired by Rachel Spronk’s (2014) call to “study the experience of sexuality, rather than only focusing on how power relations frame sexuality”, this panel sought to gain insight into what we would like to call ‘sexual enchantment’: particular features of sex that make it something extraordinary for people. Sexual enchantment thus may refer to experiences of the extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and the everyday, but it may also relate to more fundamental ontological moments in which the human and transcendental worlds touch and interact. What one understands as enchanted is amongst others determined by one’s life history, gender, religious, cultural, and historical backgrounds that have shaped one’s live. Through thinking about the concept of sexual enchantment from a variety of perspectives, the panel explored whether this approach might serve as an interesting tool to gain further insight into sexual practices.

The panel’s call to focus on sexual enchantment emanates from a few important observations regarding current prevailing studies into sexuality. First, sexuality is often studied from sexual health perspectives, which somewhat ironically implies that a lot of research focuses on unhealthy sex (e.g. Kirby & Laris 2009; Vanwesenbeeck et al. 2016; De Graaf et al. 2017). Second, studies on sex that take a more critical approach tend to limit their critical inquiry to investigating regulating discourses. This unfortunately implies that the lived experience and embodied features of sex (e.g. pleasure) often are not similarly addressed (Spronk 2014). Finally, in secular dominant contexts an emphasis on sexuality’s (assumed) ambiguous relationship with religion can be observed. Religious approaches to sexuality are regarded with suspicion. In The Netherlands for example,  Christian notions of sexuality are seen as outdated, while Islamic understandings are thought to conflict with secular sexual health approaches.

By focusing on sexual enchantment, this panel firstly sought to move away from the scholarly emphasis on the unhealthy, to instead explore the healthy parts of sex that make it so special for people. Secondly, by focusing on various experiences of enchantment, the panel proposed to shift scholarly inquiry into sex towards its affective features including pleasure, humor, comfortability, embarrassment, intimacy, and feelings of trust. Finally, the panel postulated that a focus on people’s experiences of enchantment shift the overall attention away from religious or secular identifications, as it is geared towards finding areas of overlap rather than difference.